14 Tips for First-Time Dog Owners
Dog ownership is one of life's great joys. But the idea can be intimidating if you've never had a pup before. Never fear: We have a comprehensive list of tips for first-time dog owners that provide the essential information you need to feel confident every step of the way with your new canine companion.
And since you're already doing #1, give yourself a pat on the back—you're well on your way to being a top-notch dog owner already!
Best Tips for First-Time Dog Owners
There's a lot to consider before you bring a four-legged family member home. Be sure you're ready before you say, "I do." Part of being ready is understanding what a dog requires physically and mentally—and asking yourself if you're up for the commitment for the rest of his life. "Your new dog is completely reliant on you," explains Alex Miller, a veterinary technician at Ames Animal Shelter and Animal Control in Ames, Iowa. "You may have a life, work, and friends, but your dog has nothing but you."
1. Do Your Research
To make sure you adopt a dog who will be a good fit in your life, Mick McAuliffe, director of behavior and enhancement for the Animal Rescue League of Iowa, says to "look at the big picture for the pet and for your family and for where you live—some cities or neighborhoods have restrictions." He explains that researching breeds is a good start, but a better idea is to talk to shelter staff and tell them what sort of lifestyle you want for the pet. "They really know the dogs," he adds. "They can help you find a good match."
"Do you like to spend your weekends hiking? In that case, I'd discourage you from adopting a French bulldog, pug, or other breed with a flat nose, as those dogs don't do well on long hikes in warm conditions," Mincolla says. "If you're a family that has more of a sedentary lifestyle, I'd say working or sport breeds, like [Australian or German] shepherds and some of the pointers, probably won't be a great fit based on your activity level."
You'll also want to consider what size dog would be the best fit for your family, Mincolla notes. For example, larger breeds tend to be more at risk of accidentally knocking over small children.
2. Be Responsible
Some of the longest-living dog breeds will be your best pal for up to 15 years. So making a lifelong commitment to take care of your dog means providing him with adequate nutrition, exercise, and interaction, as well as veterinary care and training. With dog ownership, you also make a commitment to your community that you'll take responsibility for your dog's actions—including picking up after him on walks!
Also research your local laws and regulations around dog ownership, and be sure to follow rules like licensing your dog and making sure he's up-to-date on any mandatory vaccinations, like rabies, which is required by law in most states.
3. Assess Your Time for a Puppy
While puppies are hard to resist, take time to think through what life with a puppy in your home would be like before making a commitment, advises Emily Cook with the Humane Society of Charlotte.
"With a puppy, you can shape their personality traits since there's a certain element of nature vs. nurture. You also get to experience them learning everything for the first time. Everything is new to them. The house. Your family. All of it," Cook says.
But with that adorable puppy energy and enthusiasm comes a flip side worth considering. "You also need to think about, 'Am I okay with teaching this puppy everything at once?' Potty training. Crate training. Being gentle with the baby," Cook says.
4. Know Your Budget
One of the biggest commitments in dog ownership is the cost involved. The first year of puppydom alone averages about $4,800. From there, expect monthly, annual, and less-frequent expenses such as quality food and treats, preventative care, grooming, checkups, and vaccinations. Additionally, it's important to evaluate all the things you need to purchase before you bring your new pooch home.
5. Find a Veterinarian
One of McAuliffe's top tips for first-time dog owners is to develop a relationship with a vet that both you and your dog trust and respect. Miller agrees finding a vet is of utmost importance. "When you get a new dog, go to the vet very soon after. The doctor can walk you through the vaccination schedule the dog will need, and the best flea, tick, and heartworm preventatives."
6. Prep Your House
First, you'll need to dog-proof your home and yard for his safety. Then, stock up on some basics such as bowls, a collar, a leash, toys, and a crate for potty training if you're adopting a puppy. Although adopting a senior dog will still require just as much gear, he probably won't outgrow it or tear it up while teething.
7. Train Consistently
The first few days (or even months) in your home will be tough for your new pet. "A shelter setting is one of the most stressful things for a dog," Miller says, adding that it takes time for your new pet to relax into his new environment and to trust you as his caretaker. If your new addition tries to hide, won't eat, or isn't especially social after arriving at your home, give him space, time, and empathy. Cook says the adjustment period can take between two to four weeks, depending on the dog and their previous situation.
Be patient and practice positive reinforcement to teach your pup proper behavior techniques so he understands how to be a good boy. Develop a daily routine to make your dog more comfortable as he settles in. Consistency, stability, and predictability are the keys to keeping anxiety to a minimum during the early days.
8. Choose the Right Food
High-quality food isn't cheap, but ensuring your pup has the best ingredients to fuel his healthy romps in the park means finding a food that fits his needs. Some foods can cause systemic allergies and other health problems, while others might be meant for dogs of different sizes or activity levels. If you have questions about what kind of dog food is right for your hound, your veterinarian may have some helpful recommendations based on his age, size, and lifestyle.
Abbey Weimann, foster coordinator at Ames Animal Shelter and Animal Control, also recommends shopping at a local specialty store where employees can guide you to a nutrition solution that meets your pup's needs if he has allergies or other issues.
9. Consider a Microchip
A microchip is a tiny device placed painlessly between your dog's shoulder blades under the folds of loose skin. It holds your pet's unique ID number when scanned by a vet or shelter. While at the vet, inquire about microchipping your pet as a form of protection should he go missing. If you adopted from a shelter, the dog was likely chipped there, but make sure to ask before bringing him home. "It only takes one moment to lose your beloved pet forever, but the chances of being reunited is significantly greater with a microchip," Miller says.
10. Learn How to Communicate
"There are three secrets to dog training," McAuliffe says. "Patience, patience, and patience." He adds that body language is how your dog speaks to you. "The dog tells the story if you're willing to listen," he says. One way to be sure you and your pup are listening to each other is through socialization and puppy training classes based on positive reinforcement.
11. Know Your Dog's Needs
McAuliffe adds that first-time dog owners should be aware of both the physical and mental health of canine friends. Not only do dogs need daily exercise and active playtime, but also social interaction with humans and other animals. McAuliffe suggests enrichment toys such as Kongs and puzzle toys to keep your dog's mind sharp and avoid boredom.
12. Get Backup Support
You'll need a support system as a first-time dog owner. For example, if you're regularly away from home for hours on end, you may consider doggy daycare—or at least a dog walker. When you travel and your pup can't go with you, you'll need a boarding solution or a pet sitter. McAuliffe also emphasizes having a plan for the unthinkable. "If there's a sudden life change, do you have support that can also support your pet?" he asks. "If you break your leg, who will walk the dog?"
13. Be Ready for Setbacks
Let's face it: Life happens. "At some point he will have an accident inside, or chew up your shoes or headphones, or get in the trash—it is all part of having a pet," Miller says. "It's a learning curve," McAuliffe says, for both of you. He recommends The Association of Professional Dog Trainers for behavior support. Also, many shelters have free helplines and some vets are very well-versed in behavior should you have questions.
"People go on the internet and there's lots of checklists for puppies that say [your dog needs to] 'meet 25 new people every day' and they are scary and unrealistic!" McAuliffe says. He advises to just do the best you can. If you're stressed, your dog will know it. So take a deep breath and know that if you give your dog love and care, he'll return it tenfold.
Additional reporting by Laurent Levine Corriher.